Los Angeles Times

Movie review: 'Dogville'

Chicago Tribune Movie Critic

3 stars (out of 4)

Lars von Trier's "Dogville" is a movie about outsiders - and a movie meant for them as well.

Done with both expertise and an almost scornful defiance of moviemaking norms, this bizarre Danish-American fable of hypocrisy and redemption was one of the scandals of last year's Cannes Film Festival. A howl of nihilist mockery at American self-sentimentalization, it's a movie so theatrical and perverse that it's almost guaranteed to outrage or drive away much of its audience.

But if it does, they'll be missing something special.

"Dogville" is a three-hour drama from a major filmmaker, with an all-star international cast headed by Nicole Kidman, but almost no sets or scenery. Set in an isolated Rocky Mountain town, it was filmed entirely on a nearly bare Copenhagen soundstage, on a floor covered with chalk marks that are supposed to represent the film's invisible houses and streets.

What Von Trier conjures up on those imaginary streets and houses (complete with an imaginary dog lying on an imaginary porch), is a preachy but phantasmagorical social drama that suggests Bertolt Brecht or Thornton Wilder ("Our Town") as much as it does Henrik Ibsen or Arthur Miller, while it savagely deconstructs the great American small-town myths of Norman Rockwell or "It's a Wonderful Life."

Finally, in an absurdist, childlike way, "Dogville" becomes another excruciating von Trier drama of social hypocrisy and female suffering, this time about a gangster's moll (Kidman as Grace) fleeing her mobster lover, The Big Man (James Caan).

Desperate, she implores help from a seemingly "salt of the earth" American community. At first they offer her aid; then they exploit, enslave and nearly destroy her.

Like the Western town that can't be roused to defend its lawman in "High Noon" or the Swiss Village that sells its soul for money in "The Visit," Dogville becomes an arena of moral disgrace. And though one Dogville man seems both a moral conscience arguing her case and perhaps the love interest - the evocatively named Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) - we're not so sure of him. Tom, eventually, may fail Grace too.

Everyone else does: Ma Ginger, the cantankerous widow (played by ageless Lauren Bacall), gentle old blind man Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara), gossipy town lady Vera (Patricia Clarkson), thuggish farmer Chuck (Stellan Skarsgaard) and Tom's seemingly upright father, Tom Sr. (Philip Baker Hall).

Soon, Grace is a virtual slave, treated as a whore and chattel by a citizenry all too ready to cast the first and last stones. This is, in fact, the "persecuted outcast heroine" story that von Trier has told over and again, with Emily Watson in "Breaking the Waves" and Bjork in "Dancer in the Dark." But this time it ends with something different: an apocalyptic explosion.

Von Trier has always had a talent for provocation and scandal, as he's shown before in the ersatz German expressionism of "Zentropa," the jittery-camera sex fables of "Breaking the Waves" or "Dancer in the Dark," or in his anti-Hollywood Dogma 95 manifesto and films.

But while "Dogville" often preaches like a classic left-wing social drama, there's a strain of right-wing individualism feeding it as well. Von Trier attacks the same kind of social and moral flaws that many homegrown American movies target, while at the same time assaulting American moviemaking conventions.

In "Dogville," he strips narrative filmmaking even past the bare bones, super-neo-realist style of his weird Dogma 95 film "The Crazies." But the acting is very fine. "Dogville" has a great cast - and even if, according to Sami Saif's behind-the-film documentary "Dogville Confessions," many of them were alienated by the difficult shoot, the strain doesn't show. The actors - especially Kidman, Bettany, Hall, Skarsgaard, Clarkson and Bacall - play their parts with clarity and total control.

Despite all of its self-indulgence, I enjoyed "Dogville," and I'd recommend it to any moviegoer with adventurous tastes. A bizarre social drama and actors' showcase, it's a twisted pop lamentation as well.

It's also, sometimes, a royal pain. But though certainly a failure in some respects, "Dogville" may be the most fascinating, richly accomplished screw-up you'll see all year. Von Trier, who has always had a talent for provocation, nails another heroine to the cross while playing his role to the hilt - a moviemaking rebel in his own dog days.

Directed and written by Lars von Trier; photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle (operator, von Trier); edited by Molly Malene Stensgaard; production designed by Peter Grant; produced by Vibeke Windelov. Narrated by John Hurt. A Lion's Gate release; opens Friday, April 9. Running time: 2:58. MPAA rating: R (violence, sexuality).
Grace - Nicole Kidman
Ma Ginger - Lauren Bacall
Tom Edison - Paul Bettany
Chuck - Stellan Skarsgaard
Vera - Patricia Clarkson
The Big Man - James Caan
Jack McKay - Ben Gazzara

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times